Does "character" count? How about the more archaic notion of "reputation"? Not in the Obama administration, now standing tall behind what in Washington parlance is called the "troubled" nomination of Brett McGurk to be U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
McGurk's nomination foundered last week after the surfacing online of a tawdry series of private emails between McGurk, then married and the top U.S. negotiator of the U.S.-Iraq security agreement, and Gina Chon, then a Wall Street Journal reporter based in Baghdad. Their subjects? Sex and sensitive information, and the pair's mutually titillating practice of horse-trading both. If I think back to my Victorian novel class in college, I find the perfect word for what the 2008 exchanges reveal about the temperament and judgment of the man whom the administration and diplomatic establishment have unreservedly endorsed for promotion: unseemly.
Now that six GOP senators on the Foreign Relations Committee have asked the president to withdraw the McGurk nomination, we bear witness to the standard Washington power play. But we also see a more unusual clash of morals in the public square. The six GOP senators want a clean, new nominee. The Washington Establishment – people for whom doors are opened, three or four kinds of forks are laid out and all manner of manners are observed – wants McGurk, someone who broke several elementary rules of professional conduct, not to mention the Ten Commandments.
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In essence, the cultural left, mopping up its war on traditional morality, is unconcerned with such rules and wants its man rewarded. The traditional right, called to abide by such rules even as they recede into the past, still thinks breaking them – or at least the poor "judgment" that goes into breaking them – should have consequences.
To be sure, the backdrop of war sharpens the edge of the drama, injecting a note of disgust over the fact that even as Iraq fighting raged, Green Zone diplomats were having a grand old time. Then again, as McGurkites would say: They're only human. Which is well and good, and aren't we all. But does that mean that we as a people shouldn't demand more "fidelity" (another archaic word) from high-ranking representatives of the USA? Worth noting is that Chon, now married to McGurk, has resigned from the Journal for violating the Dow Jones Code of Conduct – namely, sharing unpublished stories with her source and not revealing her source relationship. McGurk, however, continues to believe the brass ring is his for the taking.
And why not, when so few public officials care about "character," "reputation," "fidelity" or, even more quaint, "propriety"? We barely remember what the words mean. Once upon a time, such a scandal would have ended a diplomat's career and sent him seeking cover in private life long before we started dissecting the gory details ("hooking up," "blue balls," access to information and sources, etc.). Morals aside, concerns about the nominee's self-discipline and potential susceptibility "next time" would have weighed heavily against his elevation.
Such concerns, however, are archaic, too. Maybe they all died in the Clinton administration, when we, as a nation, learned that shocking revelations of President Bill Clinton's extraordinary sexual predations were merely episodes for the Clinton family to withstand, to outlast, even if it turned them and us into stone in the process. Maybe it was then that society was finally desensitized to that very human quality of shame for all time.
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We don't quite know what we're missing anymore. After State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland crisply explained to the media that she was "not going to get into emails between Mr. McGurk and the woman who subsequently became his wife" – nice Victorian reference to the sanctity of marriage! – she further declared that McGurk is "uniquely qualified" for the post. Then she took a follow-up question from a reporter clearly struggling with Big Questions about morality and double standards.
The reporter said: "Because, I mean, there are rules for Foreign Service officers to not get into situations where you're blackmailed. There's sort of a sense that you have to act morally. There are these regulations in your guidebooks. And some people have lost security clearances over having extramarital affairs. So I wonder why it is that this doesn't seem to (factor) at all into your decision in keeping this – keeping his nomination out there."
Nuland: "Again, we consider him uniquely qualified. All of the necessary things were done before his nomination, and we urge the Senate to confirm him."
Far better for the Senate not to confirm him. McGurk aside, Washington could use a dab of wholesomeness.